Celebrating female hormones

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
To be labelled "hormonal" used to be an insult. Now women are reclaiming the role of oestrogen in their lives.

Eva Wiseman, of The Observer, reveals how a new generation is being "empowered" by their hormones.

The grand plan, the plan to end World War 2, was inspired by the docility of Paula Hitler. You don't hear much about Paula, do you, the lesser-known Hitler, who worked as a secretary while big brother Adolf was upstairs doing the Holocaust? But yes, inspired by Paula, British spies planned to end the war by making Adolf less aggressive. They intended to do this by smuggling oestrogen into his food, thereby turning him into a woman. Hitler had tasters, said Prof Brian Ford of Cardiff University, so there was "no mileage to putting poison in his food because they would immediately fall victim to it". But, "Sex hormones were a different matter".

Though the word "hormone" was first used in 1905, derived from the Greek meaning "to arouse or excite", it was during that period leading into the war that the science of endocrinology developed. Hormones are the body's chemical messengers; they trigger activity in the body and regulate the function of organs. But with knowledge of their effects came creeping politics. If hormones meant women were less inclined to start wars, did it also mean they were less capable of ambition? Less capable of being leaders? If hormones meant men were more aggressive, less nurturing, was equality an impossible dream?

Women's hormones sneak into our culture with a period-like regularity. In 1978 Gloria Steinem wrote in If Men Could Menstruate: "Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps." The news, too, is littered with commentary. In 2012, CNN argued women's hormones play a significant role in their voting decisions, with single women more likely to vote for Obama and married women more likely to vote for Romney; it was removed from their website after complaints. In 2015, a business survey confirmed that 54% of respondents thought a woman's behaviour at work was dictated by her hormones.

A year later Novak Djokovic waded into a debate about equal pay in sport, explaining that women faced more challenges than men to succeed in tennis, including battling against "hormones". In the Old Testament, God banters: "When she is in heat, who can control her?". He was talking about camels. There have been many, many more, all positing versions of the same idea; that women are complete nightmares at certain times of the month. And the thing is, despite the outrage that these clumsy stories cause, some researchers would agree there are kernels of truth, or shadows of kernels, or kernels of kernels, buried within them.

Martie Haselton, professor of psychology at UCLA whose book, Hormonal, discusses the "hidden intelligence" of hormones, argues that, rather than oppressive and damaging, what we've learned about women and hormones is "empowering". Rather than a simple story about women losing all rationality around their periods, she sees it as: "The story of how our hormones guide us through uniquely female life experiences, from feeling desire and pleasure to choosing a mate, having a child (if we would like to), raising a child and transitioning to our post-reproductive years." Haselton is part of a new conversation that is emerging; she is a pioneering researcher pushing the politics of hormones in a new direction. Where once women were encouraged to combat the effects of hormones with the Pill and HRT, stamping down wobbly moods in order to be in control of their bodies, today their daughters are turning away from hormonal contraceptives in order to reclaim some autonomy over their bodies, figures dropping by more than 13% between 2005 and 2015. Instead of using the Pill to prevent or plan pregnancy, they're using their phones.

The period-tracking app, Clue, was conceived by a woman called Ida Tin. It was a struggle to raise investment: men she pitched to were embarrassed discussing an app used to monitor bleeding and breast tenderness. One venture capitalist agreed to invest, but only if his details were kept private. But when she finally launched, in 2013, she attracted millions of users, and went on to raise a further 20million ($34million). I use Clue, in part, to remind myself when to expect a headache. There's an option to share my cycle with friends which is something I muse on, monthly. Who else would care that this is one of my "heavy days"? Tin explains, over email from Berlin: "At Clue, we are committed to getting more people talking about menstrual health, as being transparent about this helps us become better educated and removes antiquated social taboos. Clue Connect allows for this conversation to take place without any awkwardness." As well as sharing your cycle with your partner, she says users share with their friends, "to prevent their holidays clashing with periods or PMS. Parents can also benefit from using Clue Connect with their children, as it provides a way to teach them about fertility and menstruation."

What a world! Tin is responsible for providing a window for millions of women into the mysteries of our hormonal cycles. She found it surprising, she says, that we've managed to walk on the Moon, "but that most women still don't know on which days they were most fertile. I thought that women would find an app like Clue empowering, as they could take control of their health and educate themselves fully about their bodies."

There's that word again, "empowering"; one that 10 years ago would have seemed quite out of place when discussing hormones, which women were expected to manage, in order to avoid them managing us.

This September, entrepreneur Amy Thomson, journalist Laura Weir and nutritionist Lola Ross will launch Moody-U, an app to accompany the website they designed to help women understand their cycles. "In 2015 my periods stopped due to cortisol, stress hormones," explains Thomson. "I was 27 and it was a wake-up call." Starting a diary, she began to see patterns linking her bad moods and her hormonal imbalance. "I realised it was an algorithm. So I sold my agency, broke up with my boyfriend and set out on a mission to build this technology." Users receive personalised advice based on which Moody "tribe" they're placed into. The site offers advice, from lists of books "that help you harness the power of your period and natural rhythms" to articles on period poverty and "superfood tips". There's an online shop, too, with Rhodiola rosea root extract sold alongside Moody merch. "What I've learned," Thomson adds, "is that the biggest asset we have in the space of moods, hormones and women is [our ability to] share experiences to create fewer taboos, and empower people to understand and reconnect with their bodies' rhythms."

There's understanding, and there's understanding; there's knowing when your period's due, and there's knowing why you feel murderous towards the bus driver the fourth Tuesday of every month.

"Does anyone have any questions about hormones?" tweeted Eleanor Morgan, who was starting research on her book Hormonal: A Journey into How Our Bodies Affect Our Minds and Why It's Difficult to Talk About It, which will be published by Virago next year. She was bombarded with messages.

"The overwhelming theme was: why does our very nature make us feel so bad sometimes?" she recalls. "Underpinning this is a sense of some cruel sorcery at play, particularly in relation to PMS. I think many women feel like there must be an evolutionary reason for it."

While there's a swell of interest in women's hormones, she points out a need for an interrogation of common myths, assumptions and misinformation. After all, almost every woman will be bamboozled by their reproductive system at some point, whether around fertility, birth or menopause, all underpinned by hormonal changes.

 - Guardian News & Media

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